The Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia has a thesis in which he claims that every successful story contains within it another story. The first story narrates the action of the plot, while the second story is more or less hidden from view, or in parentheses. The art of the story-teller, according to Piglia, lies in knowing how to encode the secret story within the interstices of the first.
In Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’ this duality is expressed as tension between the self and its other, and the theme is one to which the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been drawn in all three of his novels. In fact his second, The Secret History of Costaguana is – in the parenthetic sense of Piglia’s definition – about Conrad himself. There is more than a little of Conrad also about the ‘inner weather’ of Vásquez’s writing, not least in the elusive and at times strenuous unravelling of plot. In his new book the structure of telling is doubly replicated, both the main story and the subsidiary story recounting (among other things) the relationship of a father and his daughter, while the threads holding together the parental relationship begin to unravel.
The novel begins with an account of the shooting of a hippopotamus, a one-and-a-half ton male ‘the colour of black pearl’. The hippo has escaped from the private zoo of drugs baron Pablo Escobar, in the Magdalena Valley, south of Bogotá, after the zoo, along with all of Escobar’s vast and ill-gotten estate, falls into ruin. The narrator, Antonio Yammara, visited Escobar’s zoo as a twelve-year-old, against the express orders of his parents, and the memory is still vivid. And it is memory – its tenuousness and its faulty reconstruction – that lies at the heart of this novel. ‘The saddest thing that can happen to a person’ we are told, ‘is to find out their memories are lies.’ Elsewhere we learn that ‘remembering wears us out.’ Familiar tropes emerge: deception, the inescapability of the past, stories that mirror one another, and fatherhood. It is perhaps unavoidable recalling Borges’ famous dictum that mirrors and copulation are abominations, since they both replicate the numbers of man.
Back in the 1990s, Antonio is a young lawyer who befriends a lonely man with a secret. Ricardo Laverde has just been released after twenty years in jail. He says he makes (or made) his living as a pilot, so it is hardly a spoiler to reveal that, given Colombia’s history, he might on occasion have made aerial deliveries for the wrong sorts of people. We also learn that US Peace Corps workers developed the cocaine-refining technology that helped turn Colombia into the nexus of the narco-industry over the following two decades. Ricardo was himself married to a young Peace Corps volunteer, whom he expects shortly to welcome back to Colombia after two decades’ separation. With some evocative, painterly, strokes Vásquez leads the reader through the landscape of Ricardo’s past, before returning, with a searing sense of loneliness and regret, to Antonio’s present.
Anne MacLean has translated all three of JGV’s novels into English. There were a couple of lines I questioned: her reference to Maya’s hands being ‘tainted’ by the sun rings strangely in English, as does the phrase: ‘my closed lungs made themselves felt effortlessly’. But these are small matters: for the most part the work reads beautifully.
Vásquez’s persistence in exploring the darker corners of his country’s history, in probing his characters’ intractable duality, and in questioning the frailties of both collective and individual memory, is compounded by his skill in evoking those instances, known to us all, when things changes for ever: such as when the telephone rings, and “all you have to do is pick up the receiver and a new fact comes through it into the house, something we’ve neither sought nor requested and that sweeps us along like an avalanche.”
This review first appeared in The Independent on 1 December 2012.
A few months ago I gave up reading novels, but over the summer I cheated and devoured two, both of them very slowly, my preferred mode of literary consumption. The first was Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which I read for reasons which I now forget, but which seemed good enough at the time. I won’t review it here, as the book has been around for a while.
The other, which I have just finished, was the second of Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novels to be translated into English, and is called The Secret History of Costaguana (the first was The Informers, shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009).The newer book was published by Bloomsbury two years ago, and so it’s taken a while to get to the top of my pile, even the very slow-moving pile of a reluctant novel-reader (re-reading that last line sounds ominously intestinal).
I am not an easy reader to please, but am happy to report that Vásquez has helped restore my faith – not in humanity: his novel is too dark and despairing for that – but in the genre of the novel, itself a faith that needs frequent, though not frantic, restoration. From the start of The Secret History we know we are in the hands of a consummate maker of stories, led inventively through the emerging narrative of a place and a people whose identity is continuously under threat, of internecine dispute, of civil war, of colonialization – the city itself is, after all, called Colón – and whose surprising directions and narrative angles keep the reader in a state of interested anticipation throughout.
You can enjoy The Secret History of Costaguana even if you care nothing for Conrad or his Nostromo, around which the narrator circles like a nervous cat. However, if you carry a deep affection for Conrad, and for Nostromo in particular, then you will enjoy it even more. Vásquez’s story, or a version of it related by one José Altamirano, was made famous by Conrad (but stolen by the great novelist, according to the narrator, during a long night’s conversation in which Altamirano describes the coup by which Panama was, in a way that reflects the theft of the story, stolen from Colombia).
One of the most powerful moments in the book occurs towards the end, when Altamirano, on the point of leaving his beloved daughter Eloísa, considers the difference between the two of them: himself rootless and lacking in any sense of belonging, and she of quite a different mettle:
I realised that you were also flesh of the flesh of your land. I realized that you belonged to this country the way an animal belongs to its particular landscape (made for certain colours, certain temperatures, certain fruit or prey). You were Colónian as I never was . . . Each of your movements said to me: I am from here.
The Secret History of Costaguana is beautifully translated from the Spanish, as was The Informers, by Anne McLean.